Cycling in the US from a Dutch perspective

I laughed and cried when I first watched this video. The Dutch are at least forty years ahead of us in terms of cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

Holland hasn’t always been a pedestrian and bike friendly place. In the early 1970s, prompted by the death by motor vehicle of his child, Dutch journalist Vic Langenhoff started a campaign to transform the streets of the Netherlands. Inspired by his articles, groups of angry mothers took to the streets and held up signs reading “Stop de Kindermoord” (Stop the Child Murder). London Cycling sums up the campaign,

‘Stop de Kindermoord’ was a powerful message, and it gathered widespread support among mainstream commentators and young urban political activists. In Amsterdam in the early 1970s, there were already organisations with the aims of demotorising cities, improving public transport, preventing the bulldozing of heritage sites and controlling pollution. These campaigners opposed the statist interventions of the Left and the laissez-faire economics of the Right, both of which they felt threatened the quality of urban life.

Is it time for a similar campaign in the US?

How Much Can You Carry on a Bike Part II

weight bench on Xtracycle

Despite owning a cargo bike for seven years, using it to haul countless loads of groceries, hardware and even people, I often find myself doubting its capabilities. Recently, I needed to transport an unused weight bench a few blocks to a friend’s house. I put the task off for weeks, assuming that I’d need to do this on one of the days we rent a car.

Impatient with the mess in the garage, I decided to see if I could bike it over. I strapped the weight bench to my Xtracycle and off I went on one of the smuggest journeys of my life. My smugness did not go unnoticed. As I crossed Sunset Boulevard a fixie riding hipster rode up alongside and shot some video with his smart phone. In addition to this blog, my weight bench journey is immortalized somewhere on Facebook.

It took two trips–one for the bench and the other to move 100 pounds of weights and a barbell.

I still owe Syd Mead a load of watermelons.

How Much Can You Carry on a Bicycle?

Xtracycle with a load of bamboo.

How I transported the 8-foot poles for our new trellis.

We’re overdue for an update on our car-free Los Angeles lifestyle experiment, but one thing that has made it possible is the cargo bike I’ve had since 2006, the Xtracycle.

Xtracycle pioneered the “longtail” bike, essentially a bike stretched out in order to accommodate large panier bags. My Xtracycle was an add-on to an existing mountain bike. Xtracycle and their competitors now sell complete longtail bikes. Tom Vanderbilt just wrote a good article for the Wall Street Journal, “Cargo Bikes: The New Station Wagon,” looking at a number of different cargo bikes.

Coinciding with the Wall Street Journal article was a cranky editorial in a local rag by “futurist” Syd Mead (designer of Blade Runner and Tron and chief thoughtstylist behind the Playboy Land Yacht). Mead says,

While the bicycle has many virtues, it also prompts people to go overboard. It’s often lauded as the transportation of tomorrow and the savior of cities. It is not. It is called transportation. It is not. That’s because the bicycle is not, strictly defined, a transport device. Ever try to carry a watermelon on a bicycle? (Yes, it can be done, but how much else could you carry?)

watermelon2

How much else can you carry on bike? On a recent trip, in addition to a watermelon, I picked up a gallon jug of vinegar, a 12 pack of toilet paper (no we have not yet switched to a corn cob on a string–I might be the world’s smuggest blogger, but you pick your battles), 12 cans of sparkling water, a jumbo box of kitchen trash bags and a few other items.

Xtracycle fully loaded with groceries.

Here’s another grocery store trip. And the haul being inspected for self righteousness by the cats:

IMG_0102 copy

The Xtracycle easily accommodates four heavy grocery bags. If you bring some bungee cords, you can carry even more (cat litter!). I can load up a full grocery cart and transport home just as many items as we used to in the car.

Longtail bikes handle just like regular bikes. Their long wheel base, in fact, makes them more stable. And I’m always surprised at how easy it is to climb hills even with heavy groceries.

One need not be car-free to enjoy a cargo bike. For many years Kelly and I shared a car. The Xtracycle was a big part of making that car-light arrangement work. When people ask if urban homesteading saves money, the first thing I point to is the cargo bike, not the chicken coop.

The problem? Cargo bikes are not nearly as sexy as the Playboy Land Yacht. That’s a problem I’ll get to in a future post.

Film Industry Comprimises Safety of Cyclists

Spring-Press-Ride-11Nov21-2386

Photo: LA Streetsblog.

On Tuesday the Los Angeles City Council, under heavy pressure from the film industry, voted to remove most of the green paint from bike lanes on Spring Street. The lanes had been installed two years ago as part of a pilot project to test this type of highly visible bike lane used in other cities such as New York and Chicago. Film industry groups complained from the very beginning, claiming that the lanes screwed up their shots. The lanes, however, were popular with local businesses, the Downtown Neighborhood Council and residents. And a bike count conducted by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition showed an overall 52% increase in bike traffic on Spring Street. There was a 100% increase in women cyclists on weekdays and a 650% increase in women cyclists on the weekend.

I was a part of a group of cycling advocates who attended the City Council meeting. Before the bike lane issue came up on the agenda, we all had to endure a two hour self-congratulatory tribute to an outgoing, term-limited councilman. When the bike lane agenda item finally came up, councilman Huizar announced that the Council and film industry had reached a “compromise” and that there would be no public comment. So much for democracy.

The “compromise” consists of removing most of the green paint. Here’s the before and after:

la-me-bike-lane-paint-20130619-g

Source: LA Times.

As a pilot project, theses lanes were under evaluation by LA Department of Transportation engineers. The council, essentially, interfered with this experiment at the behest of moneyed interests. It would have been nice to see if these lanes increased safety. Now we won’t know.

After the council approved the compromise, without public comment, Councilman Tom LaBonge came up to me and asked me what I thought. I told him that I thought the council was compromising safety. He told me that the film industry is important here. I asked him if he thought a film is worth a human life. He said, “we’ll have to agree to disagree.”

On Living in Los Angeles Without a Car: A Debate

busla

Photo by Sarah Sulaiman LAStreetsblog.org.

Walkin’ in L.A., nobody walks in L.A.
Walkin’ in L.A.
Walkin’ in L.A., only a nobody walks in L.A.

- Missing Persons

Erik: It’s been nearly two months since a texting video producer totaled the car that Kelly and I shared: a 1993 teal Acura Integra hatchback. Except for a few car rentals, we haven’t been doing much driving. In short, we get to claim the olive wreath of eco-smugness: living car-free in the epicenter of car culture, Los Angeles. Not even the electric car driving Ed Begley Jr. can aspire to our level of self-righteousness. I’d like to continue the experiment.

Kelly:  Hmmm….do I get to be the bad guy in this debate? The car partisan? To me, it’s not so much a question of car or no car. I don’t like cars. I’d love to live without a car. The question for me is more like LA or no LA, because this city is built around the car. I want to live car-free, but I don’t want to do it here. I know it’s possible–we’ve been doing it. But it’s not pleasant.

Have you ever heard the term “pole shade”? It’s the thin sliver of shadow thrown down by the pole of a street light. People waiting for buses in LA huddle in the pole shadows, trying to shelter from the insanely intense LA sun. There are very few bus shelters here. Bus stops are ill-marked afterthoughts in an already unlovely urban landscape.  I stand in the pole shade, wondering if the bus will ever come, and I seethe about the way this city treats its pedestrians.

Continue reading…

How to Cycle Safely

No I’m not making this up. Thank you Bikesnobnyc for finding a “bicycle accident fun set.”

To follow up on yesterday’s post Is Cycling Too Dangerous? I thought I’d post some tips and resources I’ve found handy for staying out of trouble on a bike.

Tips

First, I’m assuming that we’re all following the rules of the road, i.e. stopping at red lights, riding with traffic, as well as using lights, wearing a helmet etc. And I’m talking about rules for adults here–kids are a different situation. These are just a few of what I consider the most important things I’ve learned:

  • Route choice. I carefully choose my regular routes to maximize the time I spend on quiet, seldom traveled side streets or in bike lanes/paths. I will go well out of my way to avoid high speed, bike-unfriendly streets. When going to a place I’ve never biked before I choose a route ahead of time on a map. Google has a bike option now that can work as a starting point. Many cities also have bike maps that can also be handy.
  • When going through an intersection watch out for people making left tuns. Assume that you are not seen even if you are wearing a florescent pink bunny suit. Also watch out for people making right turns. Always assume the worst is about to happen and have a plan to either turn quickly or slam on the brakes.
  • Avoid the door zone. There are rare exceptions when I will dip into the door zone briefly (only while going very slowly). But for the most part you should stay out of it. It is impossible to predict if a door will open.
  • Lane positioning is an art not a science. It comes with experience. At any given spot on a road I might be further to the left or right depending on what time of day it is, what the weather is like and the general “mood’ of the street. A good guide to getting the hang of how far to the left or right to be is an excellent book The Art of Cycling by Robert Hurst.
  • Controlling anger. This is the skill that took the longest. I’ve since learned to ignore all honking and even the most egregious behavior on the part of motorists. Arguments are not worth the time and can quickly escalate to violence. Plus you come off like the Portlandia bike dude.
  • The sidewalk is, generally, not a good place to be. The problem comes when you roll off the sidewalk and into the intersection. It’s asking to be hit by a motorist turning right or left. They won’t see you and you can’t dodge the car as well as you could as a pedestrian.

Resources

  • Online I really like the website bicyclesafe.com
  • And, once again: The Art of Cycling by Robert Hurst. I’m suprised that more people don’t know about this book. It changed my life and saved my ass on more than one occasion.
  • Lastly, a friend of mine, attorney Ross Hirsch has a checklist you can download and carry with you in case you’re in an accident. You can find it here (pdf). It has a list of things you should write down as well as California laws relating to cycling. Even if you don’t live in California the checklist is handy.

Please feel free to add other tips you think I should have mentioned in the comments.

Is Cycling Too Dangerous?

Photo by Dru Marland.

I’ve been hit by cars twice cycling around Los Angeles. In the first accident a medical delivery driver made a left turn in front of me and I collided with the rear panel of his car. It was his fault but, initially, the driver’s employer tried to come after me for $900 worth of damage. Fortunately, their insurance company took my side in the matter and even replaced my bent fork. In the second accident, a motorist bumped me from the right. I’m not sure what happened, but I think he was merging out of a parking space and didn’t see me. Thankfully, they were minor collisions and I walked away from both without a scratch. But the cycling death of an acquaintance and the serious accidents of several friends has caused me to consider the risks of cycling, particularly in this less than bike friendly city.

An excellent blog post on the Guardian takes up the question of the costs and benefits of cycling. Author Peter Walker does the right thing, in my opinion, by seeking the opinion of public health experts. One, Dr. Harry Rutter, has this to say:

All activities carry a risk. For some reason there seems to be strong focus on the risk of injury associated with cycling. Clearly, when deaths do takes place that’s tragic, and we need to do all we can to avoid them. But I think there is a perception that cycling is much more dangerous than it really is.

This focus on the dangers of cycling is something to do with the visibility of them, and the attention it’s given. What we don’t notice is that if you were to spend an hour a day riding a bike rather than being sedentary and driving a car there’s a cost to that sedentary time. It’s silent, it doesn’t get noticed. What we’re talking about here is shifting the balance from that invisible danger of sitting still towards the positive health benefits of cycling.

Having volunteered on the board the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition for a few years, I’m well aware of how hard it is to make our cities more bike and pedestrian friendly. Another expert Walker talks to compared the struggle for safer cycling and walking infrastructure to efforts to curb smoking, noting that the anti-tobacco struggle took 60 years to get going.

The article concludes with a provocative conclusion, “There are two interventions that we know increase walking and cycling: living in the Netherlands and living in Denmark.”

So what do you readers think? Is cycling worth the risk?

Film Industry Blocks Bike Lanes, City of LA Doesn’t Care

Film industry trucks block bike lanes all the time here in Los Angeles, particularly along busy and fast moving Sunset Boulevard. Shutting down a bike lane on Sunset forces cyclists to merge into traffic that is sometimes going as fast as 50 miles an hour. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen.

Not much room between a fast moving bus and a film industry truck.

As to the legality of blocking a bike lane I don’t have a good answer, but in my opinion it doesn’t matter. Even if it is legal, that doesn’t make it right or safe. Is a film production worth a traumatic brain injury or a death?

Those of us who ride a bike in Los Angeles need your help. I want get the word out that:

  • Elected officials in the City of Los Angeles (in this case, Councilman Garcetti’s district) do not take the safety of cyclists and pedestrians seriously enough.
  • The film industry values profits over human lives.

Please Tweet, Facebook and link to this post even if you don’t live here. Appeals to the police department and elected officials in the past have done nothing to fix this problem. All we get are excuses and, once LAPD calls the film crew, hand made signs like the one below:

In Portland, Oregon cyclists get a detour:

To contact those responsible for this situation please email the following:

Film L.A. (the non-profit entity that coordinates and processes filming permits): [email protected]
Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti: contact form 

Like most cyclists here in LA, I also drive, walk and take public transportation so I understand this issue from all sides. We need equity in our transportation choices and we all need to stay safe.

UPDATE: Looks like the city has “fixed” the problem with slightly more official looking signs:

Too bad it’s still dangerous. I guess it’s going to take a death to fix this problem.

UPDATE 8/29/12: More coverage in The Eastsider and Streetsblog.